By Paul Schankman
When you think about belly dancing, you probably think about the Middle East.
But in the middle of South St. Louis, students from all over the area get together on a weekly basis to learn the art of that ancient dance.
“Most of the people I have (in class) never danced before in their lives,” said Heather Ward, better known in belly dance circles by her stage name, Nisaa.
Since 2008, Nisaa has been teaching belly dancing to both beginners and advanced students at a small dance studio at the corner of Flad Avenue and 39thStreet.
The particular style of belly dancing she teaches is from Egypt, the birthplace of belly dancing. The style is called Raqs Sharki. Nisaa has been researching the dance for years, and has even written a book about it called Egyptian Belly Dance in Transition.
Nisaa began belly dancing herself as a way to relieve stress while in graduate school at the University of Illinois in Urbana, taking lessons in a farmhouse.
“I didn’t tell anyone I was doing it for the first nine months or so,” Nisaa said.
“I wanted it to be just for me and I also didn’t want to have to explain that was not learning to be a stripper. It’s a cultural dance,” she said, adding, “now I have those conversations all the time.”
One of her advanced students, Donna Gladden decided to take lessons because her sister and her mother both belly dance.
“I was literally at level one and I couldn’t get the arms right or do anything really, but you don’t have to be good. You just have to keep trying,” Gladden said.
Another student, Joanne Diaz starting taking lessons about ten years ago, when she turned 40.
“It helped me a lot. I used to be a klutz and it taught me to place my feet, and have good body consciousness,” Diaz said.
Although belly dancing is widely thought to be something done just by women, in the Middle East it is a social dance done by men as well.
One of Nisaa’s students is Fadi Halabi, a Lebanese man living in St. Louis for the past three years.
“Belly dance is part of my culture. The stage performances are usually done by women, but when you look at social (activities), belly dance, which is what people do at weddings and with their family and friends, is done by both men and women,” Halabi said.
“One of the very important things about this dance form is in the individualism. No one is a cookie cutter dancer,” Nisaa said.
“A lot of the dance is about personal expression of the music, so to see them develop into an individual dancer is what I love the most,” she said.